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Mass Literacy

Higher-Level Language Skills Can Be an Underlying Cause of Difficulties With Reading Comprehension

Difficulties with reading comprehension can stem from different underlying causes. Higher-level language skills, including inferring and comprehension self-monitoring, are necessary for successful reading comprehension, and problems with these skills can lead to problems with reading comprehension.

How Problems With Higher-Level Language Skills May Present

Children might display difficulty with:

  • understanding or making connections and associations between words and sentences, such as cause and effect
  • making inferences; missing important information or ideas in text that were not directly stated
  • analyzing text elements such as character, plot, or author's craft
  • understanding figurative language or idioms
  • noticing when their reading stops making sense
  • noticing or describing story structure

Underlying Causes of Difficulty With Higher-Level Language Skills

Possible root cause(s) of difficulty with higher-level language skills include:

  • Problems with phonics and decoding or with automaticity and fluency, which can draw resources away from comprehension
  • lack of explicit instruction in reading strategies such as inferring and monitoring for comprehension
  • difficulties with academic vocabulary or insufficient background knowledge related to the topic of the text being read, which disrupts deeper comprehension
  • weak understanding of syntax or grammar that disrupts comprehension of sentences or series of sentences
  • weaknesses with working memory (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015)
  • specific reading comprehension deficit or developmental language disorder

Preventing Problems With Higher-Level Language Skills

Children can develop higher-level language skills through strong core instruction, beginning in PreK, that includes read-alouds of rich texts, text based discussion, and opportunities for extended discourse to develop oral language. In addition, explicitly teaching children reading strategies such as inferring and comprehension monitoring is effective with relatively brief instruction (Elleman, 2017). Some students have a specific reading comprehension deficit or developmental language disorder which makes it harder to develop higher-level language skills. Some of these students need much more deliberate instruction and additional support delivered through Tier 2 and/or 3.

Approaches to Intervention for Students Who Have Difficulty With Higher-Level Language Skills

Intervention is necessary when children do not make adequate progress with higher-level language skills even after receiving strong core instruction with opportunities to practice and use language. It is necessary to investigate the underlying cause of this difficulty for individual children before providing an intervention since there are a variety of possible root causes. Effective intervention focused specifically on higher-level language skills may include:

  • Targeted oral language instruction and enrichment (Snow et al.,1998; Landi & Ryherd, 2017)
  • Dialogic reading (Zucker et al., 2010)
  • Explicit instruction in comprehension strategies and text structures (Landi & Ryherd, 2017; Catts, Adlof & Weismer, 2006; Piasta, 2015)
  • Use of visual representations such as story maps, graphic organizers, and emphasis on expository text to support understanding of text structure (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011)
  • Model summarizing, ask students to summarize at various points in a text, and teach students to generate questions to support comprehension monitoring skills (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011).

For Additional Information

Scientific Information About Difficulties With Higher Level Language Skills

Cain, K. (2016). Reading comprehension development and difficulties: An overview. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42 (2).

Hudson, N., Scheff, J., Tarsha, M., & Cutting, L.E. (2016). Reading comprehension and executive function: Neurological findings. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring, 2016.

LaBerge D, Samuels SJ. Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology. 1974; 6:293–323. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(74)90015-2.


Catts, H., Adlof, S., & Weismer, S. (2006). Language deficits in poor comprehenders: A case for the simple view of reading. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49 278–293.

Elleman, A. M. (2017). Examining the impact of inference instruction on the literal and inferential comprehension of skilled and less skilled readers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 761–781.

Landi, N., & Ryherd, K. (2017). Understanding specific reading comprehension deficit: A review. Language and linguistics compass, 11(2), e12234.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: A handbook. New York: Routledge.

Piasta, S.B. & Language and Reading Research Consortium (2015, February). Preliminary results: Impacts of Let's Know! on proximal measures of comprehension-related skills. Paper presented at the Pacific Coast Research Conference, Coronado, CA.

Snow C., Burns M.S., Griffin P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Zucker, T., Justice, L., Piasta, S., & Kaderavek, J. (2010). Preschool teachers' literal and inferential questions and children's responses during whole-class shared reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 25. 65 83. 10.

Last Updated: November 20, 2020

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